Chicks and Licks
I first heard retro/cover/boy band The Other People (TOP) play at Blue Frog in Mumbai on my 31st birthday. But as the band played Mmmbop by the once-hot band Hanson, who released the single in 1997 when I was all of 15, I felt young again. The next time I saw them, I took my school best friends along and promised them it would be worth their while. And yes, as the band belted out Shakin Stevens’ You Drive Me Crazy (which is much before even my time), we girls were back to school again.
But the band doesn’t just have retro appeal. The crowd at Frog at the band’s standing gig every last Saturday of every month is between the ages of 16 and 60. It’s not just the music they play—covers of everything from retro to rock to contemporary pop, and even the occasional Swedish House Mafia track—it’s about the boys themselves.
A duo of middle-aged ladies next to me, dressed in their best LBDs, checked out lead guitar player Gavin Cason, 45, and whispered to each other, “He’s hot,” before shouting, “Go Gavin!” A bunch of 30-something girls on the other side were counting the number of undone buttons on 27-year-old lead singer Zarir Warden’s shirt. “Take it off already,” said one. And as Zarir obliged, just to put on a black ganji, they moaned, “Why can’t he just sing like that? And why can’t the whole band be shirtless?” One of them grinned, “Yes, that was fun, but when will Sam [Samuel Berlie, the rhythm guitarist] take off his shirt—he is the one that totally gets me.”
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a band have groupies, and it’s a charged atmosphere. Sam tells me later that some of the girls were trembling as they took pictures with them after the gig. And over lunch a few days later, Zarir says it’s not just the women who love them, not that they are complaining about the female attention.
It’s also been a while since I’ve seen a band singing in English become this popular, despite never having released an album. Ever since Indipop died, the Indian music scene has seen only a few bands survive—Euphoria and Pentagram, whose latest albums came out in 2011, and Indus Creed, whose last album was released in 2012. Many of the more contemporary bands, like Agnee and Advaita, sing in Hindi. Record companies love Bollywood—that’s what sells, so that’s what gets top priority.
In a music scene dominated by Bollywood, it’s surprising to see 500 people turn up every Saturday to hear a band that sings covers. First formed in 2004 as a college band, the five-member group now includes, apart from Zarir, Sam and Gavin, Garth D’Mello, 21, on keyboards, and Aloysius (Loy) Henriques, 62, on bass guitar. The band plays gigs all over the country, at venues like Hard Rock Café and Blue Frog, and is very popular in the corporate and wedding circuit. They have opened for international acts such as Michael Learns to Rock, and recently won an award from The Pixel Project, which works to prevent violence against women, for their cover of a Kelly Clarkson song. The fact that they are super cute just helps everything along.
At lunch, they come across as a confident, fun, passionate bunch in tune with each other. Rather than paying attention to the food, one or the other is trying to guess the song playing on the restaurant’s system or singing along. Though they are working on an original album now—at Universal Music Publishing Group’s studios, as Zarir has been signed on as a writer—they have no qualms being called a ‘cover band’. “At the end of the day, you have to earn money. And you have to have people listen to you. Maybe out of the 600 people [in the audience], at least half of them would come back when we do perform original stuff,” Zarir says.
“We do put in an original here or there, just to see how people react—sometimes it’s good, sometimes it doesn’t work. Nobody really wants to listen to original English music. It’s Bollywood all the way,” says Garth. But they know that the cover scene works, and they do their best with it. “We sit together and brainstorm—and we try and see how we can do it our way. We have done covers of completely electronic tracks from DJs like Swedish House Mafia, and that’s our twist to it. No one expects that from us.”
Thanks to their age groups and their varied musical interests, the band has a massive set list—from popular songs by contemporary acts like Rihanna, Maroon 5 and boy band One Direction, to retro hits by The Beatles and Neil Diamond, among many others. And they know that they had better do it right, or else the original will come and bite them in the butt. “It’s not easy to make original music, but neither is it easy to do covers. There is a great legend you are being compared to. You have to do it well,” says Zarir.
They do seem to be doing it pretty well. If the crowd at Frog is any indication, they have a lot of loyal listeners. The band remembers a gig last year when the Mumbai monsoon was pouring down and the lights went off at the venue. “There was a big crowd gathered, and Sam just took an acoustic guitar and we sang without instruments and everyone went silent. We sang songs like 4 Non Blondes’ What’s Up and everyone joined in. It was mad.”
They understand that many people might think they are selling out by playing covers, but as Loy says, “It’s because we are doing so well. It’s hard being a band in India and there is no money at all. But we make it work.”
Then there is the question of all their female fans. When I bring it up, they all smile shyly and slyly at each other, and then burst out laughing. Have they ever been propositioned by fans? “Lots,” they all say. Sam had a lady fan inform him every day of her gym routine so that he knew that she was losing weight for their Bangalore gig. “Some girls have come up to say ‘what a great gig’ and then taken my phone from my hand and taken down my BlackBerry pin,” laughs Zarir, “Now when they ask for a number, I give Sam’s.” They also remember a time when a hot Russian girl climbed on stage to dance with them; they later discovered that she was a he.
They may be soaring ahead but they seem to have their heads on their shoulders. “It’s taken us some time to reach this level,” says Sam. “People would think nothing of paying Rs 25 lakh for a Bollywood act,” Zarir adds, “but they would think many times before paying us even Rs 3 or 4 lakh.” It could be a while before their album hits stores, but The Other People lose no sleep over it—after all, who has the time when they are busy entertaining? As they wind up their gig at Blue Frog and thank the happy crowd for coming out for the nth time, I see a teenager sigh as she looks dreamily at the stage: “They’re better than Justin Timberlake.” High praise, that.
Note: This article was modified after it was published